The Problem of May Day's Noncreative Destruction
Talk of Burning Down Seattle's Juvenile Detention Center Is Wrongheaded and Counterproductive
What is the meaning of a series of posters, one depicting a hefty-looking rock, another a hooded figure with a backpack holding a pipe, and a third the face of a deer with large antlers and empty eyes? Several weeks ahead of this year's May Day events in Seattle, those images were published at Pugetsoundanarchists.org, a riddle for viewers to decipher and a fitting prelude to a day that has become known for its complex mix of agendas. In recent years, this city's May Day has been about immigrant-rights marchers filling the avenues of downtown, loudly seeking government action to right wrongs against a vulnerable minority and, at the same time, about much smaller groups of young people wanting to smash capitalism and the state altogether. It's a lot to cram into one day.
The location of the "Anti-Capitalist March" being promoted by the posters on the anarchist website: the King County Juvenile Detention Center, set on a large block of land in the Central District. The time: 6:30 p.m. This signaled the possibility of something a little different from years past, when clashes between anarchists and police erupted downtown, overshadowing the immigrant-rights marches earlier in the day. And yet the symbolism of the rock-and-pipe-wielding figure seemed familiar and clear: expect confrontation and possibly property destruction. (The symbolism of the deer was less clear—revolution by antler?) Intricately drawn posters on telephone poles surrounding the detention center offered another clue and a more explicit message: "Warm our hearts/Burn the Juvi down."
Would anyone really attempt to attack the juvenile detention center or burn it down? That seemed unlikely as of press time, and the creators of a Facebook page for the event did not respond to a request for comment. (For May Day updates, check Slog, The Stranger's blog.) But there seemed to be a good possibility of skirmishes with the police, who arrested anarchists involved in past May Day scrums at a January demonstration outside the facility. A spokesperson for the King County Facilities Management Division, which is overseeing a voter-approved project to tear down the dilapidated detention center and replace it with a brand-new one, told me there would be extra security officers posted inside as a precaution.
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Far less mysterious, and therefore more predictable, and therefore, to some, less exciting: the annual march for immigrants and workers organized by El Comite. It reliably brings out thousands of people in a colorful assembly of workers and immigrant-rights activists, a reminder that there are many urgent reasons to protest, including the need for immigration reform, stopping unjust deportations, and the inhumane, privately run immigrant prison in Tacoma. But of course for many, the list goes on: foreclosures, rising rents, global warming. And El Comite welcomes other voices in its procession; anarchists will be there, including organizers from Seattle Solidarity Network, a highly effective group that takes on wage-stealing bosses and shitty landlords.
The immigrant march always ends at Westlake Park, where, in years past, some anarchist groups have thrown objects or smashed windows while Seattle police have made arrests, used tear gas, and dished out copious amounts of pepper spray to demonstrators and journalists (including, last year, me). Police have indicated they'll use the same tactics this year, and in general the media has found the spectacle irresistible and often treated the El Comite march, though much larger in size, as a nonstory by comparison. And while I'm as sick of ineffective, repetitive marches and rallies as anyone else, last year's march was a huge, morale-boosting gathering of beautiful people. Movements need moments like that, where people feel powerful and secure making their demands, together.
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The prospect of this year's police-versus- anarchist May Day fracas taking place outside the juvenile detention center at least offered the potential of some geographic separation between the differing demands. But the media and the general public have only limited attention spans, and given this, the anticapitalist march begins to seem counterproductive. It also begins to feel myopic and exclusionary when you talk to people like Marcel Purnell. He's a 26-year-old activist who directs Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, and he's been organizing against the construction of a new youth jail for the past two years. Purnell is opposed to a new facility, a position he shares with some anarchists. But when I caught up with him on April 27, he hadn't heard a word from any anarchists about the planned May Day protest. "It seems like a unilateral decision," Purnell, who has sat through plenty of public meetings on the subject of the detention center, told me. "To not even contact organizations that are led by people of color that are trying to shut down the jail... that's not good for the anti-prison movement. Nor is it strategic." (Full disclosure: I live near the detention center and I started volunteering there earlier this year, running weekly soccer sessions for young men locked up inside, who are disproportionately black and Latino.)
"People doing criminal-justice work have to be really intentional about including the voices and desires of those who have an intimate relationship with the people inside the facilities," Purnell continued. He guesses the lack of anarchist outreach has something to do with their culture being, as he put it, "generally white male dominated."
As for the merits of building a new juvenile detention center to replace the current one, King County voters already made that call in 2012, narrowly approving a $210 million tax levy for the project. Several county officials told me the new center is part of a broader long-term effort to make juvenile incarceration rates—which are racially biased, with young black men 4.5 times more likely to be jailed in Seattle—as low as possible. The county has taken significant steps in this direction over the past eight years, steadily reducing the average youth detention population from more than 200 in 1998 to 56 today. The plan is to bring the number of beds down from 210, the current total, to 154 in the new, smaller detention building.
"I'd love for any other urban area to show they've done as much as we have to reduce juvenile crime and jailing," said King County Council member Larry Gossett, who came into politics as an activist against racism and discrimination. Gossett added that he's fine with anyone, including anarchists, exerting pressure on a system that needs to keep on changing. But he's skeptical of the go-alone tactics some anarchists are employing. "It won't move the movement forward," he said. Officials say they're required by state law to have a juvenile detention center, and while the city's menu of alternative programs is necessary and helpful, there are certain offenders who do have to be jailed instead of diverted. In other words, they're not on board with the idea of simply destroying the detention center and calling that success.
Which is not to say that alternative programs, while robust in this city, are without room for improvement. Activists from Washington Incarceration Stops Here, another group agitating against the jail, point out that downtown homeless youth shelter YouthCare struggled last year to remain open because of a budget deficit of just $1.2 million. More broadly, they make an argument that can't be dismissed: Society's priorities are warped, education is underfunded, our prison population is out of hand and racially unjust, and King County can do better by some of its most vulnerable children. "I think the groups, including the anarchists, should continue to keep the pressure on us," said Council Member Gossett. "They have a right to do that. They're not illegitimate." He just thinks the anarchist plan, as he understands it, is "not going to work." He'll be supporting the El Comite march instead.
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Radical social movements, of which the campaign against the juvenile jail is a part, have long been the lifeblood of democracy. But local anarchists who are suggesting violence are out of sync with the spirit of May Day itself, which commemorates the 1887 hanging of four prominent anarchists in Chicago. Days before the hanging, in the first-ever May Day parade, anarchist Albert Parsons, his wife, and his two children led a march of 80,000 people down a Chicago thoroughfare, rallying the city's workers around an easy-to-understand reformist slogan addressing endless workdays: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!"
You'd have to be nuts to bring your kids to the Seattle anarchists' May Day march at the detention center, given the posters depicting rocks and calling for arson. And amid a nation-leading 15 Now campaign aimed at dramatically raising the minimum wage in Seattle, many (though not all) local anarchists have been conspicuously absent from the wage-hike movement—or openly contemptuous of it. Given all this, calling for a physical assault on the old juvenile detention center is a bizarre and stupid expression of priorities, especially for people who say they're out to critique misguided priorities. If these particular local anarchists are as impassioned about changing the world as their over-the-top rhetoric suggests, they need to step up their game. A smart, tactical May Day protest that's more about creating anew than burning down would be a fantastic start.
May Day March for Workers and Immigrant Rights The march begins at St. Mary’s Church (20th Avenue and South Weller Street) at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, and will end with a rally at Westlake Park downtown.